Melinda Walk needs her Canadian customers back — so much so that she’s willing to give them full value for their currency at her convenience store-gas station just over the US-Canadian border, even at a loss of US$0.12 on each dollar.
Walk is among border merchants caught in a standoff between Canadian Mohawks and the Canadian government over the arming of border guards stationed at the Cornwall Island Customs House, which sits on reservation land. A Mohawk protest in late May brought a bridge shutdown by Canadian authorities and only a trickle of local traffic is getting through.
“I’m willing to take a little bit of a loss to coax them back,” she said. “It’s not much, but I have to do something. The bridge closing has cost me a huge chunk of business.”
Her store sits on the US side of the St Regis Mohawk Reservation, less than 2km from the Seaway International Bridge, which spans the St Lawrence River and connects New York with Cornwall Island and Cornwall, an industrial port city of 45,000 people on Canada’s mainland.
The Mohawks accuse Canada of violating their tribal sovereignty by arming the government guards without their permission.
“For months, they have ignored our request for consultation — a basic right for a sovereign nation,” said Brendan White, a spokesman for the Canadian Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.
A small contingent of protesters has set up camp at the bridge.
About 200 other Native Canadians arrived last week from across Canada to lend their support to the protest.
“It is our land. We don’t want any more guns,” White said. “Our protest will remain peaceful, but we aren’t going to leave until the Canadian government agrees to our demand.”
The Canadian government closed the two-span bridge just before midnight on May 31 when about 400 Canadian Mohawks rallied at the Canadian Customs house on Cornwall Island. Canadian Mohawks have complained to the government in the past about abusive behavior and racial profiling by the guards.
Since then, Cornwall police monitor one side, allowing residents, service workers, deliveries and emergency vehicles through; New York state troopers guard the other side.
Arming Canadian border guards is part of a 2006 Conservative election campaign promise to increase the security of the Canadian border. About 900 border guards have been armed since the effort began in August. The Cornwall station is the only one in Canada on Indian land, White said.
The US arms its border guards, but the US customs station at Massena isn’t on Mohawk land.
Canadian Federal Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan has threatened to shut down the crossing permanently if the dispute can’t be resolved. A public safety spokesman said the issue is one of national security and is not negotiable.
The Canadian Mohawks have asked the Canadian federal courts to intervene.
The economic losses mount for Walk and most of the other nearly 200 businesses at Akwesasne, a Mohawk community of about 12,000 residents spread over more than 10,500 mostly forested hectares that includes reservations on both sides of the US-Canadian border.
With the bridge closed, Americans can’t go to Canada to shop with the stronger US dollar and Canadians can’t come to St Regis to gamble and buy cheaper cigarettes and gas.
In Cornwall, merchants say they’re losing about US$10,000 a day. On the Canadian reservation, several shops have closed and others have laid off workers.